It turns out the O-Dome was the second best place in the country to watch the game. I would have loved to go to Indy, but in a way, I'm very excited to be able to go through the experience of celebrating a National Championship while at the University of Florida. It's my first semester of my senior year, so this was my last basketball season, which was very cool. Like I said, it would have been nice to be in Indy, but going to the O-Dome and then running to University and celebrating for hours was priceless.
The O-Dome was half-full. There was a 30 foot screen on the west end of the arena, and I was actually very surprised at how UF did such an incredible job setting it up. I've been to a few events there, such as Midnight Madness, where the screen they used was less than stellar. You could see this screen from all angles, and it was a high quality picture. Makes you wish we had a jumbo-screen in there. I bet Jeremy won't hesitate to make that happen now.
The band was there...cheerleaders...mascots...camera crew. It was just like watching an actual game and the Rowdy Reptiles were going crazy. I've never heard that arena so loud at full capacity, let alone half-full. At one point, I seriously thought the O-Dome might collapse in a few areas. The wood underneath your feet was shaking and rumbling like I've never seen or felt before. There wasn't a quiet person in the house. It was a thrilling atmosphere.
When the game ended...the madness began. We were some of the first people out of the O-Dome, and as we walked outside...you would've guessed a bomb dropped or tornado sirens were going off. People were running around everywhere you looked...screaming and ripping off their shirts. Random people would run up to you screaming and throw their arms around you and yell "Go Gators!" or something along the lines of a "WOO HOO!!" and run off.
The reality started to set in. Wow...did this really just happen?!?! We started to feel it.
So we obviously had plans to celebrate at University, and we're walking up the sidewalk next to the Swamp on North-South, listening to car horns blaring, and watching people run in front of traffic banging on people's hoods and yelling. We saw a guy in a Blue Gators Speedo and a Zorro mask run past us yelling "Number One, Baby!", and there were just thousands of people flooding the streets from every direction...everyone screaming at the top of their lungs. If you weren't making noise or celebrating, people would run up to you and shake you, doing anything they could to fire you up. It was pandemonium.
Looking around, I saw the looks on many people's faces and nobody honestly believed what was happening. This isn't a reaction that people have experience with...winning something like a National Championship. You don't see what happens usually with other schools, so you really don't know how to act besides the feeling of extreme jubilation and wanting to run and yell. There were mixed looks of utter disbelief, there were faces with fear on them of people not knowing what others would do...but most of all, everyone was just letting it rip. No one really knew how to express their excitement, so everyone just went crazy.
I felt bad for whoever was trying to drive home from the O-Dome. You literally couldn't see the streets. When a hurricane hits, it rips up trees and backyard fences...the neighborhood looks completely different and landmarks are no longer there to judge where you are. This was how you felt along University. You couldn't see anything but celebrating people where streets and walkways were. Instead of walking along the sidewalks of University, we were charging through the streets. Cops were just standing off to the side knowing they could do nothing about it.
There was a point initially where you felt like you might be in danger. There were a ton of drunk students and local bar regulars out there going nuts...and you really had no idea what people were going to do. We'd heard rumors that people might flip over cars or start fires. The Gainesville Police were ready for riots. We had no idea what to expect when you jam a bunch of crazy, drunk, elated fanatics together while they're pushing, shoving, and celebrating wildly.
The fear vanished immediately, however, after a few minutes of rumbling through the crowd of crazies. I was very impressed at how responsible and respectful people were. After all, this is Gainesville, and Florida has the greatest fans in the country.
It's hard to describe the type of things going on out there. Among others, we saw bottle-rockets shooting from the center of the pile, fireworks were going off at the corner of University and Swamp restaurant. Toilet paper was everywhere and was constantly flying above, paper and plastic bottles flying through the air. Girls were on guys' shoulders and screaming wildly. There were guys stripping down to their boxers and standing on top of newspaper vending machines. People were climbing as high as they could...scaling trees, poles, fences. There were a group of guys that shimmied up the stop-light post. They were arrested.
The hero of the evening was a chubby guy that scaled the stop-light on the corner of University and Swamp restaurant. He carried with him a 12 foot Gator flag...stumbled his way somehow out to the edge of the light, and stood up and waved the flag for a few minutes. The crowd went absolutely nuts!
The night was filled with Gator chants...singing...members of the band showed up and were playing fight songs. I saw a group of the football players celebrating and snapped some pics with them. There were fans who were painted, fans who were 90% naked, fans with crazy hats, fans with pots and pans. There were dogs with Gator jerseys on...I saw a guy wearing a Gator flag as a cape, with a mask and beer funnel on his head running through the crowd yelling "The British are Coming!". I saw people fall off the vending machines and out of trees. There was a streaker running through the crowd.
The scene was indescribable to someone that's never experienced something like Mardi Gras or a celebration of this nature. We stayed for a few hours, until about 2:00 or so, and when we left, the crowd was just as thick as when we got there...people still screaming at the top of their lungs. I was told the S.W.A.T. team was called in to get people to go home because they wouldn't budge.
After a brief stop of taking pictures on the alligator statue in front of Ben Hill, we made the long journey back to the car that was strategically parked away from the crowd. There were still a few stray fans running around screaming on the empty campus, and every car you saw drove by with their horns blaring and people hanging half-way out the window yelling.
I finally got to sleep that night at about 4:30 or so in the morning. I had just dozed off with a smile on my face when I awoke to the sound of bottle-rockets going off and the "It's Great to be a Florida Gator" cheer outside my window. I fell back asleep dreaming of a football title.
It was a night to remember. One that I'm sure no one will ever forget. Thanks to Coach Donovan, the entire basketball squad, Jeremy Foley, and anyone and everyone who contributed to bring the National Title to Gainesville. This truly is a special place to be, and these memories will last a lifetime.
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